In order to deeply engage with historical and political complexity in a classroom, this user guide encourages both educators and learners to critically reflect on the popular idea that a classroom should be a “safe space.” A classroom is not as a contained space but rather as a microcosm of our society that holds asymmetrical relations of power resulted from historical process such as colonialism. Pratt (1998) calls such a social space a “contact zone.” That is a site of struggle where people of diverse historical, cultural, political, social, and geographical trajectories meet, clash, and negotiate their identities and relations with one another.
Activities listed in this user guide are designed to engage learners in uncovering such historical and political complexity and reflecting on their relationship to the complexity. The activities could generate challenging moments to both learners and educators by revealing their various aspects of identity to others, illuminating diverging levels of privilege between them, and challenging their assumptions shaped by their social positions, education, media, and so on. As a result, a wide range of emotional reactions may be triggered, such as guilt, anger, shame, fear, defensiveness, denial, resistance, frustration, and indifference. Nonetheless, discomfort and conflict arising from unpacking political nature of our identities and relations in contact zones need to be acknowledged and supported, rather than hidden or denied, as part of a valuable, and inevitable, learning process for critical consciousness and transformation (Ewert-Bauer, 2011a, 2011b; Kumashiro, 2002).
To guide and support such a complex, and often challenging, learning process, it is crucial to develop a classroom climate that attends to emotional and social, as well as intellectual, aspects of learning (Ambrose et al., 2010). Classroom climate has different dimensions, such as:
- a physical learning environment (e.g., room set-up, course format, such as face-to-face, online, blended, etc.)
- the process of interactions (e.g., behaviors, attitudes, and tone of speech); and
- the content (e.g., whose perspectives are included and not included in course materials).
Ambrose and colleagues (2010) discuss how these components of classroom climate intricately interact with student development, including intellectual development and social identity development, to impact students’ ability to learn.
To create a respectful and productive classroom climate, you may explore strategies suggested by Ambrose and colleagues (2010), which include:
- Resisting a single right answer/Embracing ambiguity
- Encouraging learners to base their opinions on evidence
- Examining your assumptions about learners
- Not asking individuals to speak for an entire group
- Modeling inclusivity (e.g., Using inclusive language and diverse examples, integrating different perspectives into course content)
- Establishing and reinforcing ground rules for interactions
- Preparing learners for sensitive topics by explaining why it is valuable to discuss the topics despite potential discomfort and tension
- Addressing tensions early as they emerge and turning them into learning moments (e.g., Unpacking a learner’s insensitive comment by explaining its possible impact on some others despite a lack of a malicious intent, taking a time out when a heated moment arises to allow learners to write their reflections)
In addition to these strategies, you may explore the website, What I Learned in Class Today (Crey & Perreault, 2007), for concrete examples and analyses of a classroom situation and possible strategies. For example, the video of student interviews in the website illustrates some heated moments resulting from discussing Indigenous issues and how these poorly handled classroom moments had a negative and lasting impact on Aboriginal students’ sense of identity and their ability to learn. You can also see the Discussion Topics section for some analyses of these challenging moments and strategies for how to unpack the moments for constructive discussion and learning.